Coaster Kingdom


100 years ago, Sir Hiram Maxim opened three Captive Flying Machines to fund his project to become the first man to fly a measured mile.

This biography celebrates the colourful life of Sir Hiram Maxim and how his influence helped shape modern society. 

Article by John Phillips

Sir Hiram Maxim

Sir Hiram Maxim may not be a name that will mean a lot to Joe Public, but it is fair to say that as an inventor and engineer, he was right up there with more celebrated names of his generation. Besides being a great inventor, he was truly a larger-than-life character, and his eccentricities saw him become embroiled in many truly bizarre events. Probably the most intriguing thing about the man is that throughout his life, nature of his various projects varied wildly. While many of his inventions brought great benefits to people, and his rides brought joy to thousands, his most famous invention was designed to kill - the automatic machine gun.

Hiram Stevens Maxim was born on February 5th 1840, in the small town of Sangerville, Maine, USA, the son of Isaac Weston Maxim and Harriet Boston Maxim. He had little formal education, relying on a one-room schoolhouse in the town, which he attended for just five years. Local legend has it that, while attending this school, he and his younger brother Isaac (who later changed his name to Hudson) vowed to each other that they would both, one day, be famous. It was a vow they would both achieve, albeit on opposite sides of the Atlantic.  

Thomas Edison
Edison: A man which Maxim had little respect for 


In his early days, Hiram took a wide variety of jobs in various towns in Maine, including a stint at a gristmill in the town of Abbott, where a severe rodent problem inspired his first invention - an automatically resetting mousetrap. Such was the quality of his machine, that in his autobiography, “My Life”, he recalls an incident many years later, where he went into a shop to buy a mousetrap, only for the assistant to show him a model identical to his own design, claiming it to be the finest of its kind. Maxim had never thought to patent his invention, and it was the first of many instances through his life when his ignorance of the patenting system would cause him problems.

A physically strong and highly competitive man, he briefly took up boxing in his youth, until advised by his doctor to stop. Nevertheless, throughout his life, the combination of his great strength and immense determination led him to involve himself in numerous unusual escapades. On one occasion, for example, he was so enraged to see a group of youngsters harassing an old man that he feigned helplessness, so that when they inevitably rounded on him, he could launch into an all-out attack on his would-be assailants. On another occasion, he even leapt onto a moving train in order to apprehend a man he was convinced had stolen money from him a year earlier. This not only demonstrates the amazing lengths to which he would go to prove himself right and avenge what he saw as unjust, but he very fact that he could identify the man (rightly, it transpired) after so long demonstrates a remarkable level of mental discipline

Professionally, Maxim’s first large project was the invention and popularisation of practical electric lighting. He was introduced to the subject by New York industrialist Spencer D. Schuyler, who had heard of French experiments into the subject, and founded the United States Electric Lighting Company to exploit its commercial possibilities. Maxim agreed with Schuyler that there was a need for a safe form of lighting, as the then-conventional gas-powered lighting systems had been known to cause many accidents, sometimes resulting in entire buildings being burnt to the ground. As this would be long-term project, Maxim also looked into a short-term solution to the fire hazard, and invented the world’s first automatic sprinkler system, which even included a mechanism that would automatically alert the police and fire brigade to the emergency.

Of course, when it comes to electric light, the popular perception (both then and now) is that it was the solely the work of Thomas Edison. Maxim made no secret in his later years that he found this frustrating, and states very firmly in his autobiography that he began his work with Schuyler “Two years before Edison took up the subject”. The reason for his annoyance was simple. Maxim had discovered a technique for creating a high-quality filament for the electric light bulb, only for a colleague (whom Maxim refused to name) to fraudulently patent the idea as his own. Maxim did not challenge the patent, but Edison did, presumably aware that the law on discredited patents meant that the idea would not get credited to Maxim, but would become public property. Once the challenge had been successful, Edison was legally free to create his own version of Maxim’s filament without any requirement to acknowledge his work.

While Edison went on to take the plaudits for electric lighting, Maxim’s autobiography leaves little doubt that the he had no admiration for the man, whose popularity and fame he found immensely irritating. His frustration was not helped by the numerous incidents where he set up displays of his arc lights, only for spectators to assume he was merely a salesman displaying Edison’s invention. In his own words, “I was annoyed, and told Schuyler that the next time anyone said ‘Is it Edison’s?’ I would kill him on the spot”. Edison would eventually come to refer to Maxim as “The most versatile man in America”, but if this was an attempt to pacify Maxim, it failed, as Maxim made it quite clear in his autobiography that he never forgave him.  

In 1881, he represented the US Electric Company at the Paris Exhibition, where his work earned him the Legion d'Honneur. While in Paris, he spoke with another American, who joked "If you want to make your everlasting fortune and pile up gold by the ton, invent a killing machine - something that will let these Europeans cut each other's throats more easily - that's what they want". This would eventually set him on the path toward his most famous invention, the automatic machine gun.  

Maxim triumphantly displaying his automatic machine gun

Credit: Dartford Archive

After the Paris Exhibition, he decided to make his home in Europe, and moved to South Norwood, near Croydon. The move was not, however, a simple a case of him preferring life in England, as he left behind an extraordinary, and highly complex marital situation in America. He had married his first wife, Jane Budden Maxim, in Boston in 1867, and the couple had three children, Hiram Percy Maxim in 1869, Florence Maxim in 1873, and Adelaide Maxim in 1875. He then married another woman, Sarah Haynes, in New York in 1880. Jane finally divorced him after the emergence of a third woman, Helen Leighton, who claimed that she had married Maxim in New York in 1878, and that he had deserted her the following year. The truth of Leighton's claim was uncertain, but the revelation that he had been married to three women at once led to him becoming the subject of several unflattering articles in American newspapers, all of which no doubt made it all the more appealing to remain the other side of the Atlantic. Finally, he would legally (re)marry Sarah Haynes in London in 1890, and would stay with her for life.

Once settled in England, Maxim took up the killing machine idea that had been offered to him in jest at the Paris Exhibition, and began work on what would become the automatic machine gun, or “Maxim Gun” as it was eventually called. The basic idea of Maxim's design was that the energy of the recoil would be harnessed and used to load the next cartridge. The original version of the Maxim Gun was heavy and cumbersome, and before long, he came up with a more practical design, capable of firing 600 rounds per minute. In 1884, he set up the Maxim Gun Company, and offered the invention to the U.S. War Department, who surprisingly turned it down, calling it “unworthy”. The British Army, however, was more impressed and placed a large order for the machines. In 1888, the Maxim Gun Company moved to Crayford (near Dartford), and merged with its main rival, the Nordenfeldt Company, to form the Maxim Nordenfeldt Guns and Ammunition Company Ltd. Around this time, he was also approached by Vickers Sons and Company, a steel firm that would later be famed for its involvement in the armaments industry, and he decided to buy into the concern. The following year, Thorsten Nordenfeldt resigned, and was replaced by Albert Vickers, bringing the two parties closer. It was a partnership that would prove very useful in Maxim's future projects.

Page 2: High Life: Fascination with flight takes off


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